Every so often I turn my column over to one of my thoughtful students. Aniqa Chowdhury is a lifelong resident of Queens and currently a student at Fordham University—Lincoln Center. Here are her thoughts on Cuomo and his domestic violence initiatives…or lack thereof.
There are approximately 51,000 mothers, daughters, and grandmothers in New York today currently sitting behind bars due to domestic and sexual violence related crimes and yet we see no progress in their sentences being commuted.
In all of New York State history, only three survivors of domestic violence have been granted clemency…ever. Since Gov. Cuomo’s inauguration, he has made several commitments particularly as it relates to clemency. As governor, Cuomo has unlimited power to grant clemency either in the form of a pardon, which forgives one’s crime after the completion of their sentence, or in the form of a commutation, which reduces or eliminates one’s sentence while still in prison. Yet, here we are today, in his third term specifically, his ninth year, with only 18 commutations to account for. Of the 18, only one was a survivor of domestic violence, Valerie Seeley. Comparatively, California’s Governor Newsom has already granted 23 commutations in just 10 months, more than Gov. Cuomo has granted in 9 years.
This is not to say that Cuomo has not done anything to address the issue of domestic violence. In fact, in October of 2015, he introduced an initiative which would “help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality” for incarcerated New Yorkers. However, the guidelines he created in the commutations section of the state website outline specific criteria that hinder this very accessibility.
Was this just a ploy to secure his third term in office as governor?
Cuomo also signed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act this past May. While this act can effectively prevent further victimization of individuals who have endured domestic and sexual violence at the hands of their abusers, it does not change the fact that there are still thousands of women in New York today unjustly incarcerated for domestic violence. Thousands of women who Cuomo has the absolute power to free at any time. Therefore, simply allowing these women an opportunity to apply for resentencing through this act seems like the bare minimum on his part as governor of New York.
We should not subject criminalized survivors of domestic violence to spending more time incarcerated and away from their families than absolutely necessary, and we don’t have to.
The #FreeThemNY campaign, a project of the New York chapter of the prison abolitionist organization, has created a list of 17 incarcerated women who could be considered for release immediately. If Gov. Cuomo is unable to free all criminalized survivors, he can begin by freeing these 17.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.